The ringtone. Once considered a way to express yourself as an individual, a perk of having a top end phone, the ringtone itself has fallen on hard times. When was the last time you heard a custom ringtone being used? In fact, when was the last time you heard a phone ring at all?
A bit of history
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of agreement as to which phone popularized custom ringtones. Several sources list obscure phones which had custom ringtones back in 1996. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the first mass-market phone with multiple ringtones was the Nokia 5110 you see above you. I know it was actually possible to create custom tones and load it into the phone. It wasn’t easy and it took a cable which was practically impossible to get, but it was possible. Custom ringtones have been with us since at least 2000 if you look at it that way.
By the mid-2000s, “smarter” phones (I hesitate to use the word “smartphone”) like the Cingular 8525 could use MP3 files as ringtones. Several Motorola phones like the popular RAZR allowed for fairly good sounding ringtones but with this generation of phones you could actually get small snippets of real music and use them as ringtones.
When Apple first released the App Store for its iPhone, it was “game on” for ringtones. It got a lot easier to download ringtones and you didn’t have to make them yourself. In fact in the years after the release of the iPhone it became harder and harder to make your own custom ringtones.
Building the buzz
Starting about 2015, though, I began to notice that more and more people were keeping their phones on “silent” all the time. This was aided by iOS’s ability to give you custom vibration patterns so you could still identify who was calling.
The “ringtone” was important once upon a time because people didn’t obsessively carry, touch, and look at their phones. For the last half-decade or so, people have tended to be no more than a few inches from their phones. The gentle noise made by the vibration motor has been all they need to know someone’s calling.
I’ve also noticed that custom ringtones are the butt of jokes more often than not. It used to be that a ringtone, like a phone case, made a personal statement about who you are. It could identify you as a fan of a musician or TV show. But suddenly, a custom ringtone seemed silly if it went off in a meeting. The custom ringtone seemed as out of place in today’s culture as the black leather belt-mounted phone case.
Are custom ringtones dead?
Yeah, if not dead, custom ringtones are certainly out of style. In fact ringtones of any type are out of style. What’s in style instead? Keeping your phone on the table so you can stare at it constantly. Another trend that seems to be gaining steam is not worrying about it. More and more people are becoming aware that excess screen time is a bad thing. They’re realizing that text messages, calls and social notifications aren’t the only things in life.
Ironically, choosing to put the phone away or intentionally leaving it in the other room may finally cause some people to take their phones “off vibrate” and that may actually cause a ringtone renaissance. Hey, stranger things have happened. I mean, vinyl records are back so why not ringtones?
Personally, I’ve tried going 100% silent. I can’t do it all the time. I do keep my phone on vibrate a lot, especially when I’m in a group of people, but when I’m home by myself I do keep the ringer on. I don’t rely on custom ringtones per person much anymore. Instead I use the feature on my phone that announces the caller’s name. People still laugh at me when they hear the phone ring but on the other hand I’ve never left my phone at a restaurant by mistake. So, who’s laughing now?
Next step is to pull that old leather belt holster out of retirement…